Mike Leigh is, without serious question, a major filmmaker. His method of improvising from complex characters to develop a then-fixed shooting script makes his movies feel like nobody else’s, he tackles interesting subjects, and he’s brilliant with actors. And yet (and granting that I’ve never seen his widely admired Gilbert & Sullivan biopic) I can’t say that he’s ever made a movie I don’t have very serious reservations about. I admire his movies less in practice than in theory, and sometimes I become dubious about the theory. Naked and High Hopes and Secrets and Lies all had unforgettable scenes and some truly inspired acting, and all left me completely cold. Outside of their peak scenes I ultimately found them arid, pedantic, and either mechanical or inert in their dramatic arc.
Never made I movie I don’t have very serious reservations about until now, I should say. Because Vera Drake is a marvelous film, a minor masterpiece. As a movie about the injustice of (inevitably inequitably applied) abortion law it’s ideologically straightforward; it’s not an ambiguous satire like Alexander Payne’s equally marvelous Citizen Ruth. For most other filmmakers the ultimate simplicity of the narrative might be a road to disaster, but in this case it serves to pull all of Leigh’s considerable talents together. Sure, he stacks the deck more than is necessary or desirable in the near-saintliness of the lead character. But otherwise, it’s a basically perfect film. One major advantage of focusing on a systematic injustice is that there are no personal villains of the type that nearly wrecked his slice-of-British life movies. He has no need to stop the movie dead in his tracks to present cartoonish, one-dimensional reactionaries–one-joke characters that aren’t even funny the first time–he strains to make fun of in High Hopes and Naked. The political implications of the story are dramatized; there’s no reading of position papers by the characters, no hectoring of the audience. And in the context of a fascinating dramatization of a fascinating story, his unmatched eye for the details of working-class life and the exceptional performances he seems to get at will do indeed make him seem like a master. While Payne’s new movie is of similar quality, I doubt I’ll see a better movie this year.